Year 4

Our work during the fourth year of the CIRM New Faculty award has been focused on achieving the goals set forth last year for the two first aims of the grant: 1) identifying the stress-response mechanisms that preserve hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) fitness during periods of metabolic stress; and 2) understanding how deregulations in DNA repair mechanisms contribute to the aberrant functions of old HSCs and the aging of the blood system.

Blood development is organized hierarchically, starting with a rare but well-defined population of HSCs that give rise to a series of committed progenitors and mature cells with exclusive functional and immunophenotypic properties. HSCs are the only cells within the hematopoietic system that self-renew for life, whereas other hematopoietic cells are short-lived and committed to the transient production of mature blood cells. Under steady-state conditions, HSCs are a largely quiescent, slowly cycling cell population, which, in response to environmental cues, are capable of dramatic expansion and contraction to ensure proper homeostatic replacement of all needed blood cells. While considerable work has deciphered the molecular networks controlling HSC activity, still little is known about how these mechanisms are integrated at the cellular level to ensure life-long maintenance of a functional HSC compartment.

HSCs reside in hypoxic niches in the bone marrow microenvironment, and are mostly kept quiescent in order to minimize stress and the potential for damage associated with cellular respiration and cell division. Previously, we found that HSCs also have a unique pro-survival wiring of their apoptotic machinery, which contribute to their enhanced resistance to genotoxic stress (Mohrin et al., Cell Stem Cell, 2010). Now, we identified autophagy as an essential mechanism protecting HSCs from metabolic stress (Warr et al., Nature, in press). We show that HSCs, in contrast to their short-lived myeloid progeny, robustly induce autophagy following ex vivo cytokine withdrawal and in vivo caloric restriction. We demonstrate that FoxO3a is critical to maintain a gene expression program that poise HSCs for rapid induction of autophagy upon starvation. Notably, we find that old HSCs retain an intact FoxO3a-driven pro-autophagy gene program, and that ongoing autophagy is needed to mitigate an energy crisis and allow their survival. Our results demonstrate that autophagy is essential for the life-long maintenance of the HSC compartment and for supporting an old, failing blood system.

Previous studies have also suggested that increased DNA damage could contribute to the functional decline of old HSCs. Therefore, we set up to investigate whether the reliance on the error-prone non-homologous end-joining (NHEJ) DNA repair mechanism we previously identified in young HSCs (Mohrin et al., Cell Stem Cell, 2010) could render old HSCs vulnerable to genomic instability. We confirm that old HSCs have increased numbers of γH2AX DNA foci but find no evidence of associated DNA damage. Instead, we show that γH2AX staining in old HSCs entirely co-localized with nucleolar markers and correlated with a significant decrease in ribosome biogenesis. Moreover, we observe high levels of replication stress in proliferating old HSCs leading to severe functional impairment in condition requiring proliferation expansion such as transplantation assays. Collectively, our results illuminate new features of the aging HSC compartment, which are likely to contribute to several facets of age-related blood defects (Flach et al, manuscript in preparation).